Spotlight On… White Horse Wine and Spirits!
You might think your life is interesting.
You work an interesting job. You have interesting friends. You go on interesting vacations. You have interesting hobbies. You read interesting books and listen to interesting music.
Your life exceeds Thoreau’s quiet desperation, knocking on the door of a life worth living.
And that’s a good thing. In fact, that’s an awesome thing. Few of us get that far.
However, unless you’ve visited White Horse Wine and Spirits, you have no idea how interesting life can be.
If we say “liquor store”, you probably conjure a picture in your mind of your local store: a few aisles of popular wines and liquors and a wall of coolers with cold beer, decorated with cardboard boxes and staffed by a guy who’s been standing behind the counter since Prohibition ended.
And there’s nothing wrong with that store. They’re the backbone of our industry, and, when you visit, you know what you’re going to find and where to find it. It’s convenient. That’s part of their allure: dependability.
Regardless, there are a handful of stores that go above and beyond. White Horse Wine and Spirits is one of them, and, when you walk through the door, you can tell the difference.
“This place is bonkers,” we said to Social Media and Design Alchemist Courtney Rosenberg when she arrived.
In what used to be an Acme at 676 White Horse Pike in Absecon, it’s difficult to convey how extraordinarily huge this place is. It’s thousands of square feet of vodkas and rums and tequilas and whiskeys and gins and liqueurs and cordials so obscure that their names not only don’t ring a bell, they can’t even find the bell. The bell is gone. It’s in a different building altogether. Yeah, you can get a bottle of Absolut there, but why bother when they have something like Omero Moretti Sui Lieviti?
This is what makes life interesting.
We gathered in their Classroom — more on that in a bit — to discuss how this contradiction of terms called White Horse Wine and Spirits came to be.
As we began our conversation, owner Adam Sternberger walked through the door with a Beer Cheese Plate featuring taleggio, stilton blue, aged cheddar, sweet soppressata, small-batch hard pretzels from Uncle Jerry’s, pickles, and nuts, and a Beet and Quinoa Burger with avocado, field greens, red onion, sprouts, and mayo on toasted sourdough.
That’s difficult to fit on a sign, however.
Having opened in November of 2009, White Horse Wine and Spirits began in only one half of the current store, expanding about five years ago and adding their food market element. Adam is the third-generation owner; his grandfather had begun the business in Atlantic City.
“When I was in college, my father asked me if I wanted to go into business with him, and I said, ‘not in Atlantic City’,” Adam explains, regarding the move to Absecon.
“His rule from day one was ‘no perishable goods’.”
Like many of us, Adam didn’t exactly listen to his father.
“To me, it just goes hand-in-hand,” he says. “Food is the first thing, then comes friends, then comes booze. It doesn’t matter if you’re drinking wine, it doesn’t matter if you’re drinking beer, it doesn’t matter if you’re drinking spirits — it’s the same thing. It’s meant to be enjoyed with food, friends, tell stories.”
Adam asked his wife, Elizabeth, what she thought about opening a gourmet food shop inside the store.
“She was over-educated and shot me down,” he says. “She has an undergrad from NYU and a graduate degree from UPenn, so she said, ‘no way’.”
After an about-face, Elizabeth signed on as the head chef, completely without a culinary background — “she was raised in kitchens.” For some time, Elizabeth was the only game in town. Now, the food is created by “a little Irish woman” named Colleen McAvaddy (because of course she’s named Colleen McAvaddy), as well as a second chef and six or seven other staff members that work in the market.
The exclusively take-out menu, with such options as The Surfer, a mango curry chicken salad with raisins and scallions in a whole wheat wrap with field greens, and The Parisian, with French brie, caramelized onions, fig jam, and arugula on a multigrain roll, is a little difficult to characterize. We heard such responses as “new American” and “homestyle” and “healthy eclectic”.
“It’s hard to pin down. We don’t do Italian. We don’t do Chinese,” Adam says, implying that they don’t do one thing. They could do Italian or Chinese, but you shouldn’t expect either when you walk through the door. Or you should expect both. “We might make a Mexican dish one day and it could be an Asian dish the next day.”
While one should expect the unexpected, White Horse Wine and Spirits has a commitment to quality ingredients arranged imaginatively.
“We don’t claim to be gourmet,” Adam claims, “we do warming food done right. There’s a concept put into it. There’s love put into it. It’s not lavish. It’s simple, but done right.”
About a year ago, White Horse launched a dinner initiative, where on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays — the days no one feels like cooking — they offer home cooked takeout dinners.
“We call them paper-bag dinners,” Adam says. “The menu rotates every week.”
Averaging in the $12- to $15-range, they offer one veggie option and one meat option, with such choices as Chicken Pot Pie, Three-Bean Vegetarian Chilli-Stuffed Sweet Potatoes, Baked Organic Salmon, and Broccoli Coconut Curry.
The original concept was for people to come in, pick up their alcohol, then grab some food on the way out. However, now, it’s turned on its head: White Horse’s new customers come in for the food and grab a six-pack of Coastal Evacuation on the way out.
“We’ve created an experience,” Adam says. “I always tell people that I stole it from NPR. A few years ago, their slogan was ‘Make Yourself More Interesting’.”
You could grab some Ernest and Julio Gallo and bring it to your next party, but, if you don’t want your friends to laugh at you, make yourself more interesting. Get White Horse’s staff to help you select something a little more… interesting.
“A Cape May Always Ready,” Adam suggests. “Or a Portuguese red blend. Something a little bit off the beaten path. It becomes a talking piece or can break the awkwardness of meeting someone for the first time.”
Adam claims that White Horse’s staff is the secret to their success. If you’re one of those people who are a little intimidated by acres of bottles, they’re there to lend a well-educated hand.
“It’s a much younger, trendier, happier staff,” he says. “Most of the people are pretty jazzed about what they’re doing. Obviously, you have more confidence to talk when you have the knowledge, so we have staff training. During the high time, it’s every two weeks, but it definitely helps with the air of knowledge.”
Each staff member at White Horse Wine and Spirits has their own page, each with their “picks”.
Cape May has been well-represented at White Horse since we began bottling. Eric Goble, Beer Manager and Wearer of Many Hats at White Horse, has been on board since their beginning.
“I remember having to put the barcodes on the four-packs of Sawyer’s Swap,” he recalls.
That was certainly a while ago. Since then, Eric has had a front-row seat to our changing industry.
“It’s ever-evolving,” he says. “Things that worked a few years ago no longer work.”
Eric, like White Horse as a whole, has noted the trend toward local: the national brands in craft beer have fallen out of fashion and people want more of what’s brewed up the street from them.
“We go by word-of-mouth,” he explains. “We have a very big following of customers who consistently want to try new things, so that’s also a bit of a challenge.”
Luckily, Cape May Brewing Company is up for the challenge.
“As far as sales go, Coastal and IPA are neck-and-neck, depending on what time of year it is,” Eric reports, “but your specialties — your rotating IPA series — kill it. And they’re all fantastic.”
“People are not scared of Snag & Drop,” he says. “Usually, people see the Triple IPA moniker and they run, but not for Snag & Drop.”
Adam, who graduated from high school with our very own Innovation Director, Brian Hink, would pester him in the early years, wondering when we would finally distribute outside of Cape May County. White Horse Wine and Spirits was one of the first in Atlantic County to carry us, and, now, Adam has a new favorite.
“My favorite’s Always Ready,” Adam says. “It’s just a good New England-style Pale Ale. It’s what you want out of an IPA, only lower in alcohol.”
Our beers sell so well at White Horse that they’ve begun selling selected pieces of our merchandise. Brewtique Manager Kaitlyn Smith preceded our arrival to give the display a refresh.
“Hank approached us,” Marketing Director Andrea Tudor, who might more accessibly answer to “Drea”, explains. “He was in the store, and he was like, ‘Hey. I like your displays. Uh… can we have one?’”
Sounds like Hank.
“It’s doing pretty well,” Drea explains. “This endcap has sort of been neglected, but now it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s brought new life to that little corner.”
You can find our Wrap Pint Glasses — both the map and the mermaid –, our Bog Tumbler, our Fish Throw, and our Wish You Were Beer Can Insulator, but we’re not the only merchandise in the store — not by a longshot. They carry a full selection of wine and beer accessories, barware, glassware, kitchenware, tableware, greeting cards, and giftware: including a mug that declares, “Your enthusiasm is scaring everyone.”
In the market, in addition to a wide variety of sauces, dips, nuts, and spreads, you’ll find a wide array of cheeses.
“Again, the cheeses are all Liz,” Adam says, giving his wife the credit.
They source from several different distributors, with a seasonal focus on local cheeses. April through October, they turn to Zone 7, a New Jersey-based, 100% local farm-fresh food distributor.
“They basically bring you agriculture from Lancaster to the beach,” Adam says. “But the rest of the year, it’s the same as the beer and the wine: we’ve had to take one step at a time. We started a little more basic, with things that people are comfortable with: aged cheddar, manchegos, and prima donnas. Once that started working, we started branching out into specialized blues and things like that.”
We dug into the Beer Lover’s Cheese Plate, sampling a deliciously creamy taleggio with a perfectly funky rind and a sweet stilton blue that paired beautifully with the blackberries on the plate.
Since White Horse Wine and Spirits is an off-premise account, we didn’t break into our beer; however, the plate would have paired beautifully with an Always Ready or Coastal Evacuation. The bitterness of these beers is great with cheeses, as the beer tends to cut through the fattiness and richness of the cheese.
Adam approaches pairings rather pragmatically, with heavier alcohols calling for heavier foods, but he doesn’t think anyone should be constrained by the conventional pairing rules.
“I think it takes the fun out of it,” he explains. “If you like it, drink it. If you like something, eat it.”
When it comes to selecting cheeses for a platter, Adam puts more weight in creating a balanced cheese plate rather than ensuring that everything pairs perfectly with the alcohol that goes along with it.
“It’s more of the accouterments that we put with them,” he says. “The pretzels and the pickles and the nuts.”
Should you want to learn how to do precisely that, White Horse Wine and Spirits has an educational component, as one might imagine with a room called the Classroom.
“We push the food aspect of whatever classes we do,” Adam explains. “It’s not necessarily about pairing it, but it’s about enjoying it with other things.”
White Horse recently launched a Whiskey Society, with classes running every third Thursday.
“We’ll taste four different whiskeys, coursed with food,” Adam says. “We’ll start with, say, olives and move to a cheese plate, and then something more hearty like a soup or a mac and cheese, and finish with a dessert. You’ll see the evolution of sweet and savory with what you’re drinking, but it’s not necessarily paired.”
The classes are run in a roundtable fashion — even though the tables are square — with the facilitator having bullet points to cover, but, as with many things in life, the discussion going where it goes.
“We’re not there to give you a lesson where you take notes,” Adam says. “We’re more there to facilitate conversation on a topic. But I don’t care if we’re there to talk about whiskeys and the conversation turns to the trendiness of rosés. We’re there to bring it back around.”
White Horse Wine and Spirits holds a number of on-premise events throughout the year, as well, including annual Customer Appreciation days in the first week of December, with heavy discounts, deals, and tastings.
“People stay for an hour, plus,” Eric says. “People come and they stay. It’s a huge draw.”
“It’s a Hallmark holiday to us now,” Adam agrees. “It’s sort of a self-made holiday, so we created a second one called Taste of White Horse, which is a bit of a toned-down version.”
They set the store up like a farmer’s market, bringing in food vendors offering tastings, with Taste of White Horse being more centered on pairings than Customer Appreciation Days.
“It’s more educational,” Adam says.
They also do off-site events, including at Maxwell’s Shellfish, the scions of six generations of local oyster and clam harvesters.
“All of their oysters are harvested right here locally, grown naturally by them,” Adam says. “They’re sort of doing what we’re doing: trying to flip the industry a little bit and make it an experience-driven place.”
This year, the two joined forces in September for the sold-out Sip and Shuck dinner, bringing in a live band, beer vendors, wines, and a gourmet chili bar.
And, y’all… White Horse Wine and Spirits delivers. As in alcohol. You can put an order in on their website, and they will show up at your door within a few days with your order.
“It’s not pizza delivery,” Adam explains. “We can’t accept cash at the door, and someone has to be there of-age to sign for it.”
Yet, everyone seems pretty surprised that this is legal.
“Even some of my friends say, ‘Wait. You can deliver alcohol?!?’” Adam laughs.
It’s primarily local delivery, with nineteen ZIP codes from Somers Point to Point Republic and Egg Harbor City.
“Each ZIP code has two delivery days and each delivery day has three time slots,” he explains. “You’ll have a morning time slot, an afternoon time slot, and an after-work time slot. You have to have your orders in by 10pm the night before.”
This is definitely something that you’d want when you’re planning a party, but it’s not going to work for you when you’re making your mushroom sage sauce and realize you’re out of chardonnay.
“But if you’re having a [BIG GAME DAY] party this Sunday and you want to do ShopRite from Home and then shop for your alcohol from home, it’s perfect,” Courtney says.
Ultimately, White Horse Wine and Spirits is doing something a little different, a little off the beaten path. They realize that they can’t be everyone’s stop to pick up a quick six of Cape May IPA, but they’re a place worth seeking out.
“We’re a destination,” Eric says. “We’re an experience.”
“When you’re trying to impress, or the holidays are coming, come here four times a year,” he says. “If you’re trying to make an impression at an event, come here.
“We’ll make you more interesting.”
White Horse Wine and Spirits is located in the Marketplace at Absecon, 676 White Horse Pike. For more information, see their website at www.whitehorsewine.com or call (609) 677-9880.